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Smith bicentennial renewing debate over Mormon founder

NEW YORK -- To loyal Mormons, Joseph Smith Jr. was an American prophet whose creed is preparing for Christ's Second Coming. To skeptics, he was a reprobate impostor, if a remarkably successful one.

Now as Smith's Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prepares to celebrate the bicentennial year of his birth (Dec. 23, 1805), the occasion will certainly renew debates over one of America's most important, and woolliest, religious careers.

Smith was hounded out of New York, Ohio, and Missouri; tarred and feathered, jailed, and accused of serious crimes. He repeatedly alienated close associates.

In Illinois, he ruled a theocratic city-state as prophet, mayor, chief judge, and commander of a 5,000-man militia. In 1844, he was secretly anointed an earthly king while campaigning for the US presidency. When Smith had officers pillage an opposition newspaper, he was arrested and then murdered by a mob.

Smith's prophethood was founded upon his report that, in 1827, an angel gave him golden plates inscribed in an unknown language and buried near Palmyra, N.Y. The plates told the history of Indians' ancient ancestors, who had migrated from Israel and were visited by Jesus. Smith said God miraculously empowered him to understand the language and dictate the Book of Mormon, after which the angel retrieved the plates.

Employing similar means, Smith revised -- and in his view, corrected -- large sections of the Bible. He also produced writings attributed to biblical Abraham and 134 revelations of his own as latter-day Scriptures. Mormons and non-Mormons still argue over Smith's authenticity.

Last Sunday, a church tribunal in Utah temporarily suspended Grant Palmer -- a retired teacher and executive for classes the church provides to high school and college students -- because his book, "An Insider's View of Mormon Origins," says evidence for Smith's assertions is "either nonexistent or problematic."

Palmer's publisher, Signature Books, marked the bicentennial with Dan Vogel's skeptical "Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet," which says Smith wrote the Book of Mormon from his imagination and experiences.

Church bicentennial doings include an authorized Book of Mormon publication by secular Doubleday, although last year's University of Illinois Press reader's edition is considered more useful to non-Mormons.

Other upcoming events: a Library of Congress symposium, volume one in the vast "Joseph Smith Papers" series, and a new Smith film for visitors to the church's Salt Lake City headquarters.

The landmark is expected to be Richard Bushman's biography, "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling," due next October. Bushman, an emeritus professor at Columbia University, is the leading historian of America among Mormons.

Bushman observed in an interview that the hostility Smith suffered in his lifetime is hardly surprising, given that his theological views were alien, even abhorrent, to most Christians.

For example, Smith's position on God the Father "is incredibly heretical" by orthodox Christian standards, Bushman said. Smith said that matter is eternal, so "God is the master of the universe, not the creator," Bushman said, and humans "are all gods in embryo."

Mormons "are just driven to continually exalt" Smith, Bushman said. "What I say will run against this idealized version."

Another controversy is Smith's practice of polygamy, which the church abandoned under federal government pressure in 1890. Bushman thinks Smith felt that God commanded polygamy but Smith needed to hide his involvement in the practice because he knew it was illegal. But Bushman finds it unsettling that 10 of Smith's 28 or so wives were married to other men.

The biography also treats the established fact that, before he reported unearthing the golden tablets, Smith was active in searches for buried treasure by gazing into so-called magic peep stones.

Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon historian, said Smith's critics say "he couldn't be a prophet because he was a money-digger," but maybe there's no contradiction and "he began somehow to search for treasure of much greater value."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has 12 million adherents worldwide.

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